House Museums

Obsessions: they are one of the most important tools for a writer. 

We return to the same themes again and again, if not explicitly in our work, then in order to fill ourselves up creatively. Before I wrote fiction, I wrote poetry, and my poems were full of eggs, floorboards, deer, ghostly women, Queen Anne’s lace, artesian wells, and milk. These images now reappear in my fiction, and so do the same concerns: the loneliness of the outsider, the human longing for connection, and the untrustworthiness of memory. I rework the same ideas on a never-ending mission to get them, finally, right. 

The big one, for me, is houses.

In my first novel manuscript, the narrator recounts the year he hosted an artists’ colony in his grand house in upstate New York. 

The second manuscript is set in a town undergoing an explosion of 90s subdivision development and features a character who, looking for a fresh start after a breakup with an architect, takes on an ill-considered house renovation. 

This new novel takes place primarily in a house museum. 

When I was nine, my summer camp took a field trip to Tinker Swiss Cottage. I have been enchanted with it ever since and have visited so many times that if the tour guide handed me the baton and said, “You lead this next tour,” I could. I can tell you all about the spiral staircase in the library that Robert Tinker carved from a single tree trunk. I can tell you about his fancy canes, which he had to use after his left foot was run over by a train. I can tell you how after his first wife, Mary, died, he married her niece, Jessie, who surprised him by adopting a baby when he was 71 years old. That house and the people who lived there captured my imagination as a kid, and now, as I write this story about a fictional house museum, I find myself returning to this early obsession. 

Obsessions can fuel our creativity, but in order for them to work (read: communicate ideas to other people) in fiction, I think it’s useful to figure out why we are obsessed. Underneath the obsession is usually an emotion or a question, and other people have probably felt the same emotion or had the same question, which means these can be used to open up the story to readers — to invite them in. 

The theme of houses in my work is about stability, security. What it means to be solidly built on a good foundation. What happens when we put our faith in shoddy construction. It is the difference between feeling safe and feeling unsafe. It is the difference between living in a house and having a home. 

The house museum adds on a layer of history. Whose stories are told, and whose are erased? How have we twisted history through our retellings? What palimpsests are we creating, just by living?

I am feeling stuck this week and so have been returning to this well. Writing about the fictional house, what it feels like to stand in it. What it smells like. The objects in it. Looking at photos of house museums I’ve loved and ones I’d like to visit. Thinking about what it means to tell the story of a life through a house.